In the four years since the release of Death Cab for Cutie’s last album, the changes in frontman Ben Gibbard's life have had a profound impact on his music. First there was the well-publicized split from wife Zooey Deschanel in 2011. Then last year, it was announced that longtime Death Cab guitarist/producer Chris Walla was leaving the band after 17 years, though he stuck around long enough to complete the band's ninth studio album.
These upheavals are channeled into that album, Kintsugi. The title is a Japanese term for fixing broken pottery with new pieces, which pays tribute to the breakage as a sort of battle scar. The album reflects on the nature of the tumult that’s surrounded the group in recent years.
Though he no longer resides in Los Angeles, Gibbard still has ties to the city; in a sense, the Seattle-dwelling singer is an honorary Angeleno. “I think the IRS considers me more than that after living there for three years!” he jokes. His kinship for the city led to the band’s first in-store show in 10 years, when they played at Amoeba Records the week the album was released. They'll play a slightly larger Hollywood landmark on Sunday, when they make their second headlining appearance at the Hollywood Bowl.
L.A. Weekly caught up with Gibbard fresh off the band’s European tour to talk about the making of Kintsugi, how the band — now expanded to a quintet — has changed with Walla's departure, and his time living in Los Angeles.
How has it been playing the new songs live? Have you tested them out before — like on last year’s festival run, for example?
We’ve had a policy for years of holding off on new songs until we’re going out to promote the new record. We do it so you can avoid people saying, “I saw this version of this song on YouTube and I like that live version better,” which isn’t necessarily better, it’s more like you just heard it like that first. We like to hold off playing the new stuff for that reason. At this point, having eight records worth of stuff, we’re playing five-to-six new songs every night and then the rest is catalog stuff. Overall, it seems to be going really and some of the new material is going over better than stuff on the last record [2011’s Codes and Keys], which is good to see.
This is your first tour without Chris Walla. What’s it been like playing without him live?
I enjoyed my 17 years playing music with Chris, so I’m not saying this to take away anything from that, but I really believe that the version of the band we have onstage now is the best-sounding version that’s ever existed. That’s not to take away from Chris’ contributions or other people’s — going back to Nathan [Good, the band's first drummer]’s contributions — but I think having an extra set of hands onstage as talented as Zac Rae’s, who is a phenomenal guitar and keyboard player … he’s bringing a color to the music that we’ve had to leave on the table historically because we only had four people on-stage. There was a lot of melodic information that we forgot in some of the songs because we didn’t have someone picking up those lines. Dave [Depper, touring guitarist] is just a phenomenal guitar player and singer. I’m really excited to see where this lineup can go creatively.
How involved was Chris in the writing process of the new album?
He plays on the record, but Rich Costey produced the album. This is the first time we had somebody other than Chris producing the record. Chris wasn’t as involved as he was with previous albums only because he wasn’t producing it. He’s awesome. He came up with some really great stuff and with every record we’ve made, his stamp is very much on it. As we move forward, I would hesitate to say that he will be missed in the studio if only because I’m excited about the contributions that Dave and Zac can potentially make. That’s not because Chris isn’t a brilliant musician, but as we move into this new phase, I’m excited to see what they can do. As they were learning the new parts, they saw that Chris is a killer guitar player. He’s a great musician, that Chris Walla.
Do you still maintain ties to Los Angeles?
I moved back to Seattle, but I didn’t cut all of my ties with Los Angeles, as far as the places and people that I love, and there are things I really admire about the city. But I didn’t feel a reason to keep a residence down there. My residence when I’m in L.A. is the Sportsmen's, so that’s as close to home as I get when I’m there.
What was the inspiration for “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive?” Why, of all streets in the city, did Beverly Drive resonate with you?
I’ve always loved the way those words sound. It’s such a nice name, with those syllables and vowels on those two words together. I have no specific attachment to the actual Beverly Drive, I didn’t live in Beverly Hills or anything like that. I would sometimes take Beverly Drive from the Valley over into L.A. and it was always such a beautiful-sounding street name. I had written another song called “Beverly Drive” that didn’t really go anywhere, but I really liked how it sounded so I decided to use it in the chorus of that song.
The video for that song, though, is a weary trip through the city on a Star Tours van. What was the thinking behind that video?
It was a whole day of being in one of those crazy tour vans. It was pretty gnarly. It was a fun and enjoyable experience, but it was a long day of feeling like an asshole being in one of those things. Everybody you drive by in one of those things hates you. It was weird being on the other side of that.
Did you hate them when you lived here?
I don’t think my ex-wife or I were quite famous enough to justify having one of those things stopping by our house. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore for her, but I’m not recognizable enough that anyone would be impressed by the fact that it is my house.
Even though Kintsugi was just released, are there any new or songs that weren’t used that could be the beginnings of the band’s next record?
We’re going to be touring a lot the rest of this year, but I would like to get into the studio earlier than the four years in between records. That also means I have to find time to write some new songs and start thinking about what the next record is going to be. Unfortunately, given our schedule, we don’t have time to focus on that quite yet.
Death Cab for Cutie perform at the Hollywood Bowl with Tune-Yards and Mikal Cronin on Sunday, July 12.